Recently, MNN sat down with author Dr. Peter Gleick at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif., to talk about his new book, "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water".
MNN: What made you want to write about bottled water?
Peter Gleick: I’ve been working on water issues for about 30 years, but my interest in bottled water has grown in the last several years alongside the growth of the bottled water industry itself. As sales of bottled water have exploded, the controversies over bottled water have also grown. Fiji water in particular is in many ways emblematic of the problems with bottled water: the high cost of production and transportation, and the advertising that’s required to sell it. It’s such a strange idea that it could possibly be an appropriate thing to do — to bottle water in Fiji and transport it all the way to the U.S. to be bought and sold. It’s an extreme example of the lengths we’ll go just to bring a product to the American consumer.
Bottled water has gotten a lot of flack for its environmental cost, but aren’t the plastic bottles recyclable?
PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is 100 percent recyclable, as the bottled water industry tells us over and over again. But recyclable is not the same as recycled. In the U.S. about 75 percent of plastic bottles are tossed in the landfill. And most of the stuff that’s recycled doesn’t get made into new plastic bottles. Instead, it’s shipped to China where it’s downcycled into secondary plastic materials like fiber filling. There’s a value to that, but there’s no reason why all of our PET bottles couldn’t be made from recycled PET. The technology exists. It’s a little more costly for the bottled water companies, but it would be less costly for the environment.
How do we get people to start drinking less bottled water?
We’re not going to get rid of bottled water entirely. It’s a commodity, and if people really want to buy it, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to. But, we ought to really look at why people buy bottled water. One reason is because, rightly or wrongly, people fear our tap water. In general our tap water systems are good, but I also believe very strongly that they ought to be better. But the first line of defense against bad tap water systems isn’t bottled water, it’s making our tap water systems better and making sure the public has confidence in them. The second reason people buy bottled water is because it’s available everywhere, while public water fountains are becoming increasingly harder to find. Third, some people simply don’t like the taste of their tap water. And finally, advertising and marketing play a big role. Often-deceptive advertising convinces us that bottled water is going to make us healthier, skinnier, smarter, sexier ... even holier. We need to tackle all of these issues if we’re really interested in reducing bottled water consumption.
In the book, you mention the University of Central Florida’s new football stadium, which was built without a single drinking fountain, as an example of how scarce public water sources are becoming.
It’s certainly an extreme example, but it’s not the only one. The idea that we could build a giant sports stadium that seats almost 50,000 people and not put in any water fountains boggles my mind. But more cities, schools and public spaces are removing water fountains or not building new water fountains. And that’s a problem. We ought to have public open access to tap water in public spaces.
Aren’t some cities fighting back by actively promoting their tap water?
Part of the challenge in the bottled water debate is education. If people fear their tap water, but the water is actually safe, then they need to be educated about that. That’s why cities like NYC are beginning to promote their tap water’s quality and affordability. I do think that’s part of the revolt against bottled water and I think there’s going to be more of that.
What can we do to make our tap water better?
The EPA regulates tap water and the FDA regulates bottled water, so the standards for tap and bottled water are similar, but they’re not identical. I think they ought to be identical, and I think the standards for both ought to be better. The problems we see with bottled water regulation are a microcosm of the bigger problems within our food system. It has become increasingly clear in the last decade that we aren’t adequately regulating, monitoring and enforcing standards to protect our food system from contamination. And the problems we see with bottled water, we also see with meat, vegetables — all sorts of things. The FDA needs to do a far better job of protecting our food system.
Speaking of poor regulations, what contaminants have been found in bottled water?
During my research, I came across bottled water recalls that listed all sorts of odd contaminants, such as mold, kerosene, algae, sand, fecal matter, glass particles and even crickets. With the crickets case, I can only imagine what some poor consumer discovered when they opened their bottled water. I published all of the recalls on the Pacific Institute’s Web site. I thought that they should be public information.
In the chapter on advertising, you quote Will Rogers as saying, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”
Bottled water is the quintessential example of what Will Rogers was talking about. In the U.S. we have incredibly high quality, cheap tap water at our disposal, yet we buy bottled water. In order for bottled water companies to sell their wares, they have to convince the public that this thing that they’re producing, which costs a 1,000 or 2,000 times more than tap water, is worth buying. And that means making us fear our tap water, making our tap water disappear by getting rid of public water fountains, or by convincing us that their product offers benefits that regular water doesn’t.
Do think bottled water is here to stay?
The average U.S. citizen uses 30 gallons of bottled water per year, so you can’t really call it a fad anymore. It’s a big business. But I do believe the more people learn about bottled water and the more effort we put into tackling the reasons people choose bottled water, we’ll reduce its sales and move away from it. I don’t think bottled water will ever disappear, and I don’t argue that it should disappear, but we ought to be drinking less of it. It has serious environmental and social costs and whatever we can do to reduce those costs is good for the planet.
Do you still drink bottled water?
I drink very little bottled water, but I do drink it sometimes, like when I’m overseas and am truly worried about tap water quality or when tap water is completely unavailable. When I was growing up, if my mother had brought bottled water home from the grocery store, it would have been a really bizarre event. It just wasn’t what we did. I drank tap water out of the public school fountains and in the playgrounds of NYC. I drank out of fire hydrants when they were open. Everybody did. Bottled water was just not a thing.
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